Joe Biden and the press: A case study in the absurd

Authenticity and access, that's what the campaign press corps craves.

Authenticity and access, that's what the campaign press corps craves.

Election scribes claim they long for candidates who venture off-script and are confident enough to reveal themselves on the campaign trail, to say what they really think instead of hiding behind consultant-approved sound bites. (The press, we're told, hates phonies.)

And, of course, the press prizes access to candidates in hopes of uncovering that authenticity, in hopes of tapping the candidate's true personality. The two -- authenticity and access -- are the cornerstones of the press' campaign pursuit.

So when Sen. Joe Biden was tapped as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, it should have been a press dream, right? Biden immediately swung open his doors to the press. And as he's done for years, he showed no hesitation in flashing signs of a caution-be-damned approach on the campaign trail. Forever comfortable in his own skin and representing something of a throwback to the era of garrulous Irish-Catholic pols who loved the art of conversation, Biden seemed to revel in his off-the-cuffs moments with voters and reporters.

And yes, sometimes that meant Biden became tongue-tied and made gaffes and had to walk back comments. But for reporters, Biden's approach sure seemed better than covering the type of play-it-safe candidates they regularly complain about. (I'm picturing Mitt Romney ... )

If anything, grateful reporters should have rewarded Biden's wide-open style (not to mention his generous access), right?

Wrong. Throughout the fall campaign, the press relentlessly painted Biden as a buffoon and a goof. Rather than reward Biden for being open and honest with voters, the press punished him for weeks on end.

The irony was thick. The media loved pushing the Biden-says-nutty-things narrative. Yet the press whines incessantly about how scripted candidates are and that their interaction with voters out on the trail is phony and contrived. They complain about how the candidates aren't entertaining enough, as if that's their job.

Obama “can be sort of a bore” was a typical, he's-not-amusing-us complaint from a Los Angeles Times reporter. “He's [campaigned] with dogged professionalism, but with little show of spontaneity.”

But when Biden came along and communicated spontaneously -- authentically -- on the campaign trail and routinely ventured off-script (and yes, said some unexpected and unintentionally humorous things), what did the press do?

The press mocked the candidate for not being scripted enough.

The press wrote story after story after story after story critiquing Biden for being off-message and not being scripted enough. For being too authentic and spontaneous. In short, for being a goof. It was an extraordinarily absurd and shallow press phenomenon to watch unfold.

It's true that years from now, nobody's going to care, or likely even remember, what type of press coverage Biden garnered during the 2008 campaign. And in real time, it doesn't appear to have tilted the needle of the larger White House contest. (Meaning voters couldn't have cared less about Biden's so-called gaffes, especially not after he acquitted himself so well in his prime-time debate performance.)

But as the marathon campaign season winds down, it's worth noting how the treatment of Biden simply accentuated the Beltway press' glaring Achilles heel: its insatiable appetite for trivia and insistence on putting personality and style ahead of substance. For that, Biden became a case study in the absurd.

Keep in mind that in comparison with the other candidates, Biden received very little coverage. (The amount was positively minuscule compared with the media circus that surrounded GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin.) Yet what little coverage Biden generated seemed at times to be devoted exclusively to the trivial pursuit of his so-called gaffes.

In other words, the gaffe coverage didn't represent some of the Biden coverage. It was the Biden coverage.

As for what Biden was actually saying out on the campaign trail about the country's future and the Democratic agenda, journalists didn't show much interest in that. They wanted to tell only one Joe Biden story: He's a gaffe machine!!

Indeed, the Biden coverage often had nothing to do with substance and almost everything to do with style. Doesn't that perfectly capture the determined unseriousness of today's feed-the-beast campaign journalism?

Meanwhile, you haven't heard much whining from the left, but if you wanted to select the candidate who was unfairly used as the media's punching bag during the general election season, it was clearly Joe Biden.

According to a media survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Biden's coverage was among the most negative of any candidate studied, more so than Palin's and close to [Sen. John] McCain's. Excluding the week of the vice presidential debate, 48% of Biden stories carried a clear negative tone. Another 35% were neutral or mixed. Just 17% were positive.”

That is amazing. McCain's negative coverage was largely tied to the fact that he was at the top of a ticket that went from dead even in the polls six weeks ago to trailing by double digits on the eve of the election. It makes sense that the coverage surrounding McCain's campaign tended to be negative.

But Biden? His side sprinted into an autumn lead. The only thing that explained the nasty tone of his coverage was that reporters and pundits chose to make it overwhelmingly negative; they chose to push the trivial “gaffe machine” line.

I admit I'm cherry-picking below, but I still think it's instructive to look at some of the phrases I came across while scanning the larger Biden profiles recently produced in outlets such as the Politico, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times,,, and Newsweek. Snide doesn't begin to explain the tone the press used on punching-bag Biden:

"runaway mouth"

"verbal rambling"

"odd duck"

"a gaffe machine"

"a spectacle"

"Gaffe-a-minute Joe"

"Biden Gaffe-o-meter"


"cringe-inducing gaffe"

"hopelessly off-message"

"a human verbal wrecking crew"

"legendary Biden verbal hiccups"

"the dotty uncle"

"uncontrollable verbosity"

Did Biden make mistakes on the campaign trail and say things he shouldn't have, or wishes he hadn't? He sure did. For instance, claiming that FDR, when he was president, appeared on television after the stock market crashed in order to soothe fears was not a prudent thing for Biden to say because FDR wasn't president in 1929, and television hadn't been invented at the time.

It probably wasn't politically astute, in terms of ticket unity, for Biden to label as “terrible” an Obama campaign ad that attacked McCain.

And the most serious misstep likely came when Biden stressed privately to donors that an Obama team would be tested by an international crisis in the first months of his administration.

But if you tallied up all the so-called gaffes, did they stand out as somehow historic in nature compared with previous campaigns? Hardly. And did Biden unfurl so many outrageous utterances that he hurt his ticket's chances for victory? Not even close.

Indeed, most of the Biden miscues that the press spent so much time cataloging were comically inconsequential, especially considering the countless hours that modern candidates spend campaigning in front of a press corps that records every utterance.

Nonetheless, the predictable Biden-gaffe stories became almost indistinguishable amongst the avalanche. So let's focus on one in particular to help get a sense of the type of leaky journalism that went into producing the assembly line of prefabricated Biden-gaffe articles.

A Boston Globe article last month was headlined “Biden gaffes leave Democrats with mixed emotions.” The “mixed emotions” in the headline were emphasized up high in the article when the Globe reported that “as Biden prepares to debate Sarah Palin tomorrow, some Democrats are worried.”

The Globe was pretty clear: Because of his propensity for gaffes, Democrats were “worried” about Biden and had “mixed emotions” about his candidacy. Except the Globe never quoted anybody in the article who expressed any mixed emotions about Biden or professed to be worried about his campaign performance.

Instead, every Democratic voter quoted in the Globe article expressed faith in Biden and admiration for him. When asked about his gaffe reputation (courtesy of the press), they responded this way:

  • “He's authentic. ... I'm sick of people being perfectly polished so you're not even seeing the real person. If he says things that aren't exactly a perfect fit with what the campaign wants him to say, that's OK.”
  • “You know what? ... I don't want Obama and Biden to completely think alike -- if they both think alike, they're going to miss something.”
  • “He's warm. ... When he's talking, he throws a warm feeling out to you. He wants you to listen to what he's saying because he really, really believes it.”

So tell me again, who was concerned about Biden's gaffes? Because it sure seemed like reporters emphasized that narrative because they liked it (i.e. it's trivial and easy to report), not because it reflected even the faintest concern among voters.

Meanwhile, there was another notable passage from that Globe article. It was used to highlight how Biden, aside from making gaffes, sometimes became emotional on the campaign trail:

In a school gym in Greensburg, Penn., about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, the crowd had to wait for Biden to steady his voice as he told the crowd about how Steelers founder Art Rooney, whose son Dan introduced Biden at the event, had surprised Biden's sons when they were little boys in the hospital recovering from the accident that killed their mother and sister.

Biden said he returned to his sons' room after a brief outing to find them a Christmas tree and discovered them in their beds, clutching footballs and looking “lighted up like a Christmas tree.”

“They said, 'Daddy, Rocky Bleier gave it to us,' ” Biden said, his voice petering out. For a very long moment, he wiped away tears. The crowd cheered, as if to comfort him, as he began to explain Art Rooney had done it without fanfare, and his voice broke again.

“I really apologize, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have tried to do this,” he said. “But anyway, it's a helluva family, it's a helluva family.”

Biden tried to publicly acknowledge a distant gesture of kindness from the darkest period of his life, he stumbled emotionally ( “I shouldn't have tried to do this” ), and then was cheered on by the empathetic crowd as he regained his composure.

It may have been one of the most human, moving snapshots from the entire campaign. Yet it was published in an article that painted Biden as a gaffe-prone goof.

Honestly, I'm glad this campaign season is over.